Westerns are a rarity these days but when they do come along every once in a while they’re usually to be cherished in one way or another, whether it be in poetic terms (e.g. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) or just plain gung ho cowboy battling (e.g. 3:10 To Yuma). Lawless, from director John Hillcoat, offers a lot to enjoy particularly for those partial to that once prolific genre, dripping with atmosphere and looking exquisite to boot.
Lawless is based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant which in turn tells the true story of the infamous Bondurant brothers in Prohibition-era Franklin County, Virginia. The plot centres on three brothers (played by Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke) who find their successful bootlegging business under threat from the authorities who want a cut of the profits, aided by the ruthless Chicago police officer Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce).
Directed by John Hillcoat (who made the excellent The Road and The Proposition) and written by Nick Cave (writer of The Proposition), Lawless is an often extremely violent and uncompromising look at a dangerous way of life. Although uncompromising in their own rights, Hillcoat’s previous efforts took a more ponderous approach to the Western genre (The Road is about as close as you can get without actually being a Western). Lawless is an unabashedly full-on telling, filled with bloody shootouts and even bloodier fistfights. There’s something admirable about that no-nonsense approach.
An exquisitely crafted sense of time and place makes Lawless a wholly believable affair, even in the face of its more over-the-top moments and larger-than-life characters. The story of united brothers at arms may be an altogether simple one but it nonetheless provides a fascinating look back at how the relationship between such a trio of “outlaws who became heroes” interacted with one another, how missteps and egos got in the way of tasks at hand and tested that brotherly bond in such brutal times.
Equipped with one hell of an impressive cast, the performances are all fantastic. LaBeouf is surprisingly good in the most emotionally explored role of Jack, the younger of the brothers; Hardy grunts and grumbles his way to one the year’s most fascinatingly brooding film characters as Forrest, sparking into violent life in some of the films most shocking scenes; and Clarke’s alcoholic Howard provides the backbone in a lot of ways. Also on top form are the likes of Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman and particularly Guy Pearce as the snake-like Charlie Rakes, one of my absolute favourite screen personas of the year.
It’s not the masterpiece it aims to be, however, suffering from occasional pacing problems, frustratingly limited screen-time for some of the performers (namely Oldman), and some would argue it uncomfortably revels in its bloody violence from time to time. Having said that, these were brutal times and as such the film pulls no punches, so to speak.
It may not approach the sort of instant classic nature of some other recent notable Westerns, and it’s hard to beat HBO’s portrayal of the Prohibition gangster era with Boardwalk Empire. Nevertheless Lawless is a handsomely made motion picture with excellent performances, beautiful cinematography, a cracking soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and a handful of scenes which hit you with a certain wow factor. It continues to prove there’s still plenty of life in that most iconic of genres.
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Lawless opens in UK cinemas on September 7th.